BY Art Thiel 04:59PM 04/11/2012

Thiel: Sounders fans should turn other cheek

Brian Mullan of Colorado comes to Seattle Saturday after a vicious tackle a year ago broke the right leg of Steve Zakuani, who still hasn’t returned. But there’s no need for fans’ contempt.

Sounders midfielder Steve Zakuani is still recovering from a broken leg suffered a year ago against Colorado. / Drew Sellers/Sportspress Northwest

One of the pleasures and privileges of spectator sports is affixing cartoon images of hero and villain upon those we see as deserving. Since we are discouraged from doing such things to  family, fellow workers, students (and everyone except Cuban dictators), sports teams and players such as, say, Alex Rodriguez, are delightful target — even if booing him 12 years after he left Seattle is as irrational as it is irresistible.

Saturday brings a new villain to town: Brian Mullan.

He’s the guy who almost a year ago broke the leg of one of the Sounders’ best players, Steve Zakuani, with a tackle so vicious that Zakuani had to undergo multiple surgeries and won’t return to game action until next month at the earliest.

Mullan, a top player for the  Colorado Rapids, was whacked with a 10-game suspension, tied for the longest suspension in MLS history.

But Zakuani had to spend five days in a Denver hospital before returning to Seattle via private jet. Besides the broken tibia and fibula, nerve damage to his right foot was severe enough that his career was in jeopardy for a time. The rehab has been excruciating.

He’s running now, getting healthier after losing 18 pounds, but it took a year-long bite out of his career.

So Sounders fans have a reason to work up a lather when Mullan steps on the Clink pitch at 1 p.m. for his first appearance since the episode. Mullan made things worse with his post-match remarks that displayed a galling insensitivity.

“It was a tackle I’ve done a hundred times,” he said,  “and I’d probably do it again.”

But in the post-game interview, he had no idea of the extent of Zakuani’s injuries, even though he went off the field on an ambulance gurney. Months later, Mullan, who declined to talk about the episode prior the Saturday match, now is remorseful.

“I still have a hard time with it,” he told Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl in a lengthy story in February. “It wakes me up in the middle of the night, and I can’t get back to sleep thinking about it.

“To tell you the truth, I didn’t know the extent of [the injury] until I was on my way home from the stadium. I had done the interview after the game and had no idea of the severity. It came down pretty hard afterward.”

At 5-foot-8 and 150 pounds, Mullan, 33, doesn’t look like a bully, and his previous behavior betrayed no tendency for mayhem. Before the Sounders game, he had gone five MLS seasons and 121 games without a red card. And he’s had great success — he’s been a part of five MLS champions, tied for most in league history.

“I lost the ball and saw an opportunity where I thought I could get it back,” Mullan told SI about the moments before the tackle. “And unfortunately the outcome was devastating.”

A month later at the Clink, during the 11th minute of a match against Toronto, many fans lifted placards bearing Zakuani’s jersey number, 11.

“I have those pictures up in my house,” Zakuani told SI. “It’s something I’ll keep the rest of my life.”

After Mullan returned from his suspension, Zakuani texted him. They talked on the phone. There are no hard feelings from Zakuani, for which Mullan is deeply grateful.

Now, the question becomes: How will he be received in Seattle?

The Twitterverse has been alive with suggestions this week. I don’t suppose anyone can begrudge fans who pay for the privilege of attending, and who give freely of their hearts, to unload on Mullan. It won’t be the worst thing.

The better thing would be to maintain a silence at his introduction, sight or ball possession. The best thing would be polite applause.

For crustier fans, that’s sounds so Seattle — hugging instead of hollering. I don’t care.  If the notion of sportsmanship is utterly abandoned, if games are given over to the Gregg Williamses of the world, sports drift more quickly toward “Thunderdome.” Grudges only inflame contempt. Nothing good comes from belligerence toward an unintentional, albeit ghastly, moment that is severely regretted, and already forgiven.

One can choose to disbelieve Mullan’s subsequent remorse. But to call him a liar atop a scoundrel is too much for me. A terrible sports mistake was made a year ago, but the price has been paid by all parties.

Besides, we still have A-Rod.


YourThoughts

  • Bonnell

    Mistake?  Hardly.  Dude did it on purpose; both he and his club have a history of this kind of behavior.  He should sit tomorrow; Steve will be.

    • Artthiel

      Purpose doesn’t necessarily disqualify it as a mistake. But I do understand why you, Bonnell, and others are genuinely upset because Zakuani’s lost year had to do with individual petulance that was not part of the game.

  • Bonnell

    Mistake?  Hardly.  Dude did it on purpose; both he and his club have a history of this kind of behavior.  He should sit tomorrow; Steve will be.

    • Artthiel

      Purpose doesn’t necessarily disqualify it as a mistake. But I do understand why you, Bonnell, and others are genuinely upset because Zakuani’s lost year had to do with individual petulance that was not part of the game.

  • Burnabybound

    Mullan plays for the Colorado Rockies?

    • Artthiel

       40 lashes (with a scarf, please) for my error.

  • Burnabybound

    Mullan plays for the Colorado Rockies?

    • Artthiel

       40 lashes (with a scarf, please) for my error.

  • Unforgiven

    Art, first day covering this story?  Mullan didn’t try a clean tackle.  He was upset for a non-call moments earlier and took out his frustrations on Steve’s career.  Until he is willing to come clean on what he did and why he did it there really isn’t a reason to forgive him.  How can you forgive somebody who won’t admit what he did wrong?

  • Unforgiven

    Art, first day covering this story?  Mullan didn’t try a clean tackle.  He was upset for a non-call moments earlier and took out his frustrations on Steve’s career.  Until he is willing to come clean on what he did and why he did it there really isn’t a reason to forgive him.  How can you forgive somebody who won’t admit what he did wrong?

  • RadioGuy

    Sorry, Art, I’m not with you on this one.  Mullan’s tackle on Zakuani was arguably the cheapest shot taken against a Seattle soccer player since San Jose’s Gonzalo Perez did the same thing to Pepe Hernandez in 1974 at a time when Pepe was playing terrific soccer and becoming a local folk hero…he was never close to the same player after he came back.

    Tackling is a part of soccer, including hard tackles.  But doing so with the intent to injure a player and threaten his livelihood?  I can’t condone it.

  • RadioGuy

    Sorry, Art, I’m not with you on this one.  Mullan’s tackle on Zakuani was arguably the cheapest shot taken against a Seattle soccer player since San Jose’s Gonzalo Perez did the same thing to Pepe Hernandez in 1974 at a time when Pepe was playing terrific soccer and becoming a local folk hero…he was never close to the same player after he came back.

    Tackling is a part of soccer, including hard tackles.  But doing so with the intent to injure a player and threaten his livelihood?  I can’t condone it.

  • Larry B.

    To anybody who was watching that game, Mullan’s excuse for the postgame comments, “I didn’t yet know the extent of his injuries” does not ring true.  I heard the crack of Zak’s bones breaking on the TV, for goodness sake!.  I saw the look of absolute horror on Mauro Rosales’ face when he was trying to comfort Zak.  Everybody in that stadium or watching on TV knew immediately that this was a terrible injury. But Mullan, they guy who was closest to Zak when it happened, didn’t realize what he had done?  Give me a break!  I feel for the guy because he has to live with what he did, knowing that he did it in anger after thinking he got fouled moments before.  But I would be much more inclined to forgive him if he didn’t make excuses for his actions.

    • Hammtime

      Art, I agree with Larry. The extent of the injury was obvious immediately. I too was watching it and the sound…oh…that sickening sound and to see the leg flop as Zak’s momentum slowed. ugh….it makes me ill to picture it again. For Mullan to say he had no idea is either complete B.S.

      I get it. Maybe it was out of character for Mullan. But still, such reckless play can’t be tolerated. We still don’t know if Zak will ever be the same.

  • Larry B.

    To anybody who was watching that game, Mullan’s excuse for the postgame comments, “I didn’t yet know the extent of his injuries” does not ring true.  I heard the crack of Zak’s bones breaking on the TV, for goodness sake!.  I saw the look of absolute horror on Mauro Rosales’ face when he was trying to comfort Zak.  Everybody in that stadium or watching on TV knew immediately that this was a terrible injury. But Mullan, they guy who was closest to Zak when it happened, didn’t realize what he had done?  Give me a break!  I feel for the guy because he has to live with what he did, knowing that he did it in anger after thinking he got fouled moments before.  But I would be much more inclined to forgive him if he didn’t make excuses for his actions.

    • Hammtime

      Art, I agree with Larry. The extent of the injury was obvious immediately. I too was watching it and the sound…oh…that sickening sound and to see the leg flop as Zak’s momentum slowed. ugh….it makes me ill to picture it again. For Mullan to say he had no idea is either complete B.S.

      I get it. Maybe it was out of character for Mullan. But still, such reckless play can’t be tolerated. We still don’t know if Zak will ever be the same.

  • E.

    This piece inaccurately simplifies the issues in order to reach an artificially noble point of view. As others have mentioned, Mullan’s actions had vicious intent that had more to do with retribution than with an attempt to gain possession. It was not motivated by the context of the sport but by the context of revenge. I appreciate when folks try to take the high road at times, but part of being just and fair also involves recognizing when vicious behavior occurred and responding to it with commensurate outrage. This is less about fans reacting like mindless Romans in the colosseum and more about athletes displaying brutal behavior that ends up threatening the career of a talented and smart athlete.

  • E.

    This piece inaccurately simplifies the issues in order to reach an artificially noble point of view. As others have mentioned, Mullan’s actions had vicious intent that had more to do with retribution than with an attempt to gain possession. It was not motivated by the context of the sport but by the context of revenge. I appreciate when folks try to take the high road at times, but part of being just and fair also involves recognizing when vicious behavior occurred and responding to it with commensurate outrage. This is less about fans reacting like mindless Romans in the colosseum and more about athletes displaying brutal behavior that ends up threatening the career of a talented and smart athlete.

  • Robert Lee

    Sports need villains as much as they need heroes. I suspect Mullan will get a dose of venom upon entry to the pitch, and every time he touches the ball. The only thing that would stop that would be Steve Z. getting on a mic and asking the fans to forgive. (And even that might not work) 

  • Robert Lee

    Sports need villains as much as they need heroes. I suspect Mullan will get a dose of venom upon entry to the pitch, and every time he touches the ball. The only thing that would stop that would be Steve Z. getting on a mic and asking the fans to forgive. (And even that might not work) 

  • http://twitter.com/nicktjacob Nick Jacob

    “The better thing would be to maintain a silence at his introduction, sight or ball possession. The best thing would be polite applause.”

    Anyone else’s jaw still on the floor?

  • Nick Jacob

    “The better thing would be to maintain a silence at his introduction, sight or ball possession. The best thing would be polite applause.”

    Anyone else’s jaw still on the floor?

  • Agentkooper

    I’ve had to look into myself to decide how I personally respond during this game, and I’m still not sure of the answer. But to compare A-Rod leaving for a paycheck and Mullan’s actions on the pitch, especially considering the outcome… C’mon Art! That’s like comparing apples and hand grenades.

  • Agentkooper

    I’ve had to look into myself to decide how I personally respond during this game, and I’m still not sure of the answer. But to compare A-Rod leaving for a paycheck and Mullan’s actions on the pitch, especially considering the outcome… C’mon Art! That’s like comparing apples and hand grenades.

  • Rpoole11

    Wow, polite applause? really? That is one of the most ludicrous things I’ve ever heard. Mullan will get booed, this time, and likely every time he returns to Seattle for the rest of his career. He didn’t “make a mistake” He got angry and attacked an opponent with a vicious tackle, and unless he’s blind and deaf he knew he broke Zak’s leg.

  • Rpoole11

    Wow, polite applause? really? That is one of the most ludicrous things I’ve ever heard. Mullan will get booed, this time, and likely every time he returns to Seattle for the rest of his career. He didn’t “make a mistake” He got angry and attacked an opponent with a vicious tackle, and unless he’s blind and deaf he knew he broke Zak’s leg.

  • Uatu

    The play was not unintentional.  If you watch the play, a midfielder
    tries a long pass to Mulen, but Zak steals it from him and Mulen raises
    hands in disgust to the official because he felt Tyson Wahl manhandled
    him.  He was going to get the ball back no matter what and takes chase
    once he knows no call will be made.  Note that he takes a direct line
    towards the sideline where SZ is running.  He does not change angle or
    speed because Mulen has given himself to the dark side out of
    frustration and anger and denies wrongdoing and only apologizes when he
    sees how badly he misjudged his tackle only when he finds out how
    seriously injured SZ is.  From my perspective Mulen, cost SZ a year of
    soccer experience, endangered his livelihood and mobility, and to an
    uncertain point altered his career path and earnings for the future
    because he didn’t like the call and lost his head for an instant,
    despite years of getting yellow cards and then being heady enough to
    tone down his physicality.  Zakuani is 100% class, but unfortunately, I
    am not, at least when this type of bodily harm has happened due to bad
    judgment.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=USGHfAw8VZk

  • Uatu

    The play was not unintentional.  If you watch the play, a midfielder
    tries a long pass to Mulen, but Zak steals it from him and Mulen raises
    hands in disgust to the official because he felt Tyson Wahl manhandled
    him.  He was going to get the ball back no matter what and takes chase
    once he knows no call will be made.  Note that he takes a direct line
    towards the sideline where SZ is running.  He does not change angle or
    speed because Mulen has given himself to the dark side out of
    frustration and anger and denies wrongdoing and only apologizes when he
    sees how badly he misjudged his tackle only when he finds out how
    seriously injured SZ is.  From my perspective Mulen, cost SZ a year of
    soccer experience, endangered his livelihood and mobility, and to an
    uncertain point altered his career path and earnings for the future
    because he didn’t like the call and lost his head for an instant,
    despite years of getting yellow cards and then being heady enough to
    tone down his physicality.  Zakuani is 100% class, but unfortunately, I
    am not, at least when this type of bodily harm has happened due to bad
    judgment.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=USGHfAw8VZk

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